WASHINGTON - The House voted last night to strengthen court oversight of the government's surveillance of terrorist suspects but stopped short of providing legal immunity to telecommunication companies that helped eavesdrop on Americans.
The Democratic bill, passed by a vote of 227 to 189, was a rebuke to President Bush, who has promised to veto any legislation that does not shield telecom companies from civil lawsuits. About 40 civil suits have been filed alleging the companies broke wiretapping and privacy lawsuits for monitoring phone calls and e-mails without permission of a secret court created 30 years ago for that purpose.
Bush argues that such lawsuits could bankrupt the telecoms, disclose classified information, and discourage cooperation with legal surveillance requests.
In a statement after the vote, the White House said, "This evening House Democrats passed legislation that would dangerously weaken our ability to protect the nation from foreign threats." It reiterated Bush's intention to veto the legislation in its current form.
John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the White House must first give Congress access to classified documents specifying what the companies did that requires legal immunity. But he told reporters even that might not sway him.
"My own inclination is I'm less kindly directed toward those telephone companies," he said.
House Republicans favor immunity.
"These companies deserve our thanks, not a flurry of harassing litigation," said Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, the Judiciary Committee's top Republican.
The House bill would allow unfettered telephone and e-mail surveillance of foreign intelligence targets, but would require special authorization if the foreign targets are likely to be in contact with people inside the United States - a provision designed to safeguard Americans' privacy.
The special authorization is called a "blanket" warrant and would let the government obtain a single order that authorizes the surveillance of multiple targets.
Republican critics say even blanket warrants would impede intelligence agents by slowing their ability to collect intelligence on terrorist suspects.
"This is all about lawyering up the process," said Representative Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, said the bill balances security and civil rights. "It defends Americans against terrorism and other threats, protects Americans' civil liberties, and restores checks and balances," she said.
It was the House's second attempt in recent weeks to pass an eavesdropping bill, and small changes made by Democrats since the first attempt held their party's slim House majority together. Last month, House Republicans used a procedural maneuver to force the withdrawal of a similar bill just before a vote.
The White House wants the authority to monitor foreign communications with Americans without first getting court approval, as long as the American is not the intended target of surveillance.
The White House says the exclusivity provision encroaches on Bush's constitutional powers.
A Senate panel is sending a bill to the floor that does not address telecom immunity either way.